Sugar Mountain Festival 2017 – Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne 21/01/17

The boutique Sugar Mountain 2017 festival fell on an inauspicious weekend following Melbourne’s Bourke Street tragedy and then coinciding with Donald Trump’s Presidential inauguration. A rival promoter even announced a PJ Harvey show on the same day. Yet Sugar Mountain, returning to the Victorian College Of The Arts’ stately Southbank campus, epitomises Melbourne’s cultural life – and the cool kids cherish it. It’s the most authentic – and eccentric – Melbourne fest, with curated everything. In 2017 Sugar Mountain actually presented a dog show the night prior. Costume categories including drag.

Sugar Mountain may be conceptualised as “A Summit of Music and Art”, entailing the “immersive restaurant experiment” Sensory, but music remains the lure. Alas, Blood Orange cancelled “due to personal and family matters”, being replaced with the much-mythologised The Avalanches (and a DJ set by their guest, seasoned Baltimore club MC Spank Rock). The 2017 billing was more niche overall. Nonetheless, Sugar Mountain is a fest that is reclaiming – and reinventing – hipsterdom. The dominating trend was ’90s, and noughties, nostalgia. We spotted indie-types in vintage Beyoncé and JLo (!) T-shirts.

This year Sugar Mountain switched the Boiler Room locale with the Car Park stage (now V MoVement) – odd given the need for greater visibility on the latter. The fest’s first revelation came mid-afternoon on the V MoVement platform with Moses Sumney – the Los Angeles alt-singer/songwriter premiering in Australia after cameoing on Solange’s A Seat At The Table. With his folky gospel soul, Sumney could be a highbrow Raury. His one-man show is centred around looped, and reverbed, vocals plus guitar. Sumney exhibited his vocal dexterity from the outset, performing (the unreleased) ‘Rank And File’ – spare and rhythmic. He then introduced himself to the crowd, leading into the Auto-tuney ‘Worth It’ from last year’s Lamentations EP. Imagine a more atmospheric Bon Iver… Sumney also offered the funniest banter, and quips, since Kanye West. “Where’s the mountain?” he teased archly. “Where’s the sugar? I was promised these things!” Sumney asked if he might play some “sad songs” – possibly for the “emo kids”. He picked up his guitar for 2014’s ‘Man On The Moon’ sung with a Princely falsetto. Most compelling in an already compelling set was the intense (and, again, percussive) epic ‘Everlasting Sigh’. Sumney prefaced Lamentations‘ Thundercat-assisted ‘Lonely World’: “This is my last song – because I really need to pee.” Notably, Sumney’s dramatically stark music was complemented by impeccable sound.

Perth electro-popster KUČKA intrigued pundits when A$AP Rocky randomly sampled her formative song ‘I’. She lately featured on Flume’s Skin (cue: ‘Smoke & Retribution’). At Sugar Mountain, the vocalist/producer sang to backing tracks, drawing largely from 2015’s Unconditional EP – while selecting a popular remix of ‘Honey’. She did preview one “super-fresh” song, joking that her worried manager hadn’t cleared it. The closer was ‘Queensberry Rules’, KUČKA’s collab with Dro Carey and the most clubby sequence. KUČKA has the presence of a fairy queen, her music as ethereal as Grimes’. But her songs – privileging mood over melody – are often indistinct from one another.

Melbourne raves Big Scary, their 2016 Animal again shortlisted for the AMP (Australian Music Prize), enlivened the Dodds Street main stage late afternoon. The duo have long expanded to a full band live – and their sound is huge. Animal signalled an adventurous new direction for Big Scary – Talking Heads-mode art-funk, with frontman Tom Iansek flexing his swagger. One of the strongest numbers at Sugar Mountain was the Animal track ‘Up & Up & Up’. Still, Big Scary finished with their traditional, plaintive, piano-laden classic ‘Twin Rivers’ from 2013’s Not Art.

Next, Little Simz hit Dodds Street with her DJ, OTG and stole the festival. London’s post-grime MC auteur demonstrated formidable wordplay (the UKG-tipped ‘Devour’). But she sustained that energy on slower, introspective joints like ‘Doorways + Trust Issues’, off December’s stealth album Stillness In Wonderland. The real ‘OMG!’ moment was when Simz donned a guitar for ‘Interlude’ and her recent single ‘Poison Ivy’. It’s symbolic for an artist defying categorisation. Simz bowed out with two oft-cited songs – the gothic ‘Dead Body’ and, joined by OTG on the mic, ‘Persons’. And she received more applause than any other artist. Hail, King Simz, The Great.

Last-minute headliners, The Avalanches staged an encore of the audio-visual spectacular seen at Falls Festival. In some ways, The Avalanches have become a glorified meta tribute band, with ostensibly only Tony di Blasi now gigging – Robbie Chater battling autoimmune issues. They’ve recruited various musicians – Sydney’s Jonti subbing for Chater on guitar – and, as vocalists, Spank Rock, Melbourne pub diva Eliza Wolfgramm and, rather implausibly, illwaver Oscar Key Sung. But, so nostalgically fun is the show, no one apparently cares about ‘original’ personnel. The Avalanches launched convincingly with ‘Because I’m Me’ off their comeback, Wildflower, Wolfgramm and Spank Rock interacting. Early, they boldly pulled out the novel ‘Frankie Sinatra’ – less successful reproduced live, big drums aside. Wolfgramm rocked an unexpected cover of The Clash’s punk-reggae ‘The Guns Of Brixton’. The apex was ‘Subways’ – Armand van Helden-style filter-disco extended and amplified. Especially popular were those songs off 2000’s plunderphonics Holy Grail Since I Left You – the eternally idiosyncratic ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ the ultimate crowd fave. The Avalanches played a mega-medley – ‘Stars On 45’.

Throughout the day the Boiler Room became the place to hang between sets. Its DJs adhered to an unofficial theme of disco – most obviously local hero Tornado Wallace, but even Swedish houser Kornél Kovács. But THE retro act were Mood II Swing – the New York housers resurfacing amid a ’90s revival. Closing with their retro production of Ultra Naté’s ‘Free’, the pair sounded hyper-contemporary. And hipster.

Gallery: Sugar Mountain Festival 2017 / Photos: Nikki Williams

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